Obedience in this AI Moment

During college I interned in the marketing department of the magazine, Christianity Today. Each day that summer, I rode with a friend of mine at the university who was working in the relatively new interactive office of CT. It was in a different building than I worked in and I remember walking over there after work in awe as I watched the beginnings of the Internet take off in the form of AOL chat rooms and simple hyperlinked pages. I was too young to really think through the fact that, as with any new technology, some might be mourning the loss of in-person interaction or the beginnings of 24/7 connectivity.

Today, I feel a similar sense of awe as I sit in demos with our Artificial Intelligence (AI) teams in SIL International (where I serve as the Chief Innovation Officer); but unlike in those early days, I better understand the concern that naturally comes with a technological breakthrough of this magnitude. As we watch the rapid changes that are happening as foundation models, multilingual datasets, Natural Language Processing (NLP) functionality and generative AI tools take off, there is a sense that much about how we engage with the world is about to change. 

The way we navigate the rollout of AI-enabled products and services will be one of this generation’s major contributions. The impacts will be pervasive and long-lasting. They will also be very unpredictable. I could never have imagined a smart phone with an app like TikTok when I was sitting in the Christianity Today office watching staff interact with readers in an AOL chat room. The same will be true of this significant revolution. 

While we lean into a new day, we also need to guard against the hype machine and the vaporware solutions. The world is realizing the huge impact these tools will have and is asking hard questions (as seen in this petition to Pause Giant AI Experiments, this petition for an Ethics and Integrity Charter and  this call from UNESCO for a global ethical framework). The questions will only increase as we approach Artificial General Intelligence (defined here). We need to be thoughtful as we explore the possibilities, collaborate with our partners  and innovate towards solutions that make a difference in people’s lives.

The reality is that new technologies are used in ways we could never imagine and have unintended consequences. The cartoon below is a silly example but highlights that so clearly:

There is also an urgency in this moment that global nonprofits feel even more acutely than others. This major technological shift has the potential to be of great help and benefit to marginalized people who have struggled to equitably access products, services, and information. They will more easily engage with the world as AI makes ubiquitous things that once were very costly to make available; for example information in local languages. 

There are ethical and access issues around large language models (LLM’s). Just look at this chart below that shows where machine learning datasets were used between 2015 - 2020. While there would be a bit more usage in other countries today, this chart likely would look very similar today. 

The innovations coming out of this round of tech breakthroughs will not only create new opportunities but will also have significant impacts on the work that many of our staff do each day. One recent study expects 80% of employees to have 10% of their work impacted and almost 20% of employees to have at least 50% of their work impacted. AI will also likely affect certain industries and jobs more directly than others; some of which overlap with activities that are core to nonprofit activities. We should expect significant impacts to the way work is done  even though our overall vision and mission statements will remain unchanged. 

As I have been wrestling with the significance of this moment, the hype and the urgency, I have struggled to know where to go with my thoughts. One place God has taken me is the book of Ezra. I truly enjoy the story about the people’s faithfulness to rebuild the temple. I don’t know about you but the obedience and courage of Ezra and Nehemiah have always been of great comfort to me. 

As I read chapter 3 and got to verse 10, I watched along with God’s people as the foundation was put in place. I observed their excitement as a new era in their national and faith story was being written. But as I watched and observed, I read on to verse 12 where those who remembered the temple that Solomon built wept. But the crying and the shouting all mixed together in one great noise. 

What a perplexing moment. To understand it we have to go to the two prophets Zechariah and Haggai. In Zechariah 4 verse 6 he gives Zerubbabel the famous words “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Then in the beginning of verse 10 he goes on to affirm Zerubbabel’s work and say “Who dares despise the day of small things,”. While Zechariah’s contemporary, Haggai, said in chapter 2 verse 3 and 4 of his book, “‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing? But now be strong, Zerubbabel.’ declares the Lord  . . . ‘For I am with you.’ declares the Lord Almighty.” 

With any major moment, like we are experiencing now, there will be mixed emotions. There will be the cheers of joy as we uncover new opportunities and imagine a new future. There will also be weeping as an era and a way of life disappears from view. The people returned from Babylon to a new reality that required a new response to God. The same had happened when Noah built the altar after emerging from the Ark, when Abraham made his sacrifice in the Promised Land, when the Tabernacle was constructed in the desert, and Solomon built the first Temple and when the people of Israel laid the foundation of the second and most recent Temple. Each of these moments was filled with both joy and sorrow . . . looking forward and looking back. And as with the Israelites both sounds become mixed into one giant moment of emotion that humanity raises to the sky as they come to grips with a change this monumental. 

As I read these passages, I have come to the conclusion that they weren’t being chastised for weeping or for shouting with joy. They were being challenged to wrestle with their emotions and trust that God has a plan; even if the future will look much different than the past. I think this is what God is asking us to do today. 

Much of what we have experienced will change in the coming years and much that we could never imagine (both good and bad) will be realized. But in all of it God is not surprised. In fact as the prophet Isaiah said in his prophecy in chapter 43 verses 18 and 19 before Israel was carried off to Babylon in anticipation of their return, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

So how can we live out this trust in God in a time of change? Here are four postures to consider: 

  1. Humility: None of us know where an AI-driven world will take us or what it will look like to be fully human in a time when many of the efforts that have defined us get taken up by machines. We need to submit our will and our ways to God daily and ask Him for patience and grace. As we turn to God for comfort in navigating the unknown, we can recognize that there is both joy and excitement along with fear and loss. 

  2. Learning Together: God embedded in us a curiosity that breeds empathy and human connection. We are made for learning in community! We want to learn from each other and grow as God’s children. As machines chip away at some of what we have labeled “our identity,” we, who know how God made us, are in the best position to learn how to function in a world transformed. Our task becomes to discover our true selves and what it means to be humans made in God’s image. 

  3. Grace: This level of transformation will be intrusive and confusing. As we seek to pursue opportunities and safeguard against risks, we will naturally misunderstand each other, step on toes and struggle to anticipate how our actions will affect others. It is our job to assume the very best from our colleagues and partners as we extend grace. When the changes create disequilibrium and uncertainty, we can choose to respond through discussion, listening, and open-minded engagement. 

  4. Obedience: God’s Word maps out what it means to be God’s children and followers of Jesus in a time where the new Kingdom is not yet fully seen or honored. The coming years will require hard choices from us as we seek to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no” to the new opportunities that will present themselves. What will it mean to stay faithful to God’s direction? 

So as you start each day, expect the unexpected, be ready to show an extra measure of love and kindness, look for the little lessons and ask God for the strength to be courageous in the face of the unknown. Together we can learn to navigate a dramatically different world, encourage those around us and honor God in our obedience. 

Blessings as you innovate!

To read Jon Hirst's next article on AI, please go to "The Sweetness Test."